British Vending Machines Through The Ages

British Vending Machines Through The Ages

Today we are all used to seeing and using vending machines, from topping up your Oyster card at the machine on the way to the office, to a bean to cup coffee machine dispensing your coffee when you get there. However there was a time, not so long ago when the vending machine was a new and novel way to obtain goods and services fast. This series of encyclopaedic entries will document the history of the vending machine in Britain and the changes that have taken place in this industry.

The first ever vending machine dates back as far as 215 BC. Initial designs for a primitive coin operated dispenser for holy water were published in Alexandria, Egypt by great mathematician of the time, Hero. Though no one can be sure if this machine was ever actually built and used, the mechanics used to operate it were very similar to early twentieth century vending machines.

In Britain, the first coin-operated vending device appeared in the seventeenth century. The ‘machine’ was known as an Honour Box. It comprised of a small wooden or metal box with a spring-loaded mechanism that, when triggered with the insertion a coin, would open to allow the user to take a handful of tobacco or snuff. Though the mechanism worked very well, after the lid was opened, the owner of the box was reliant on the honesty of his customers not to take more than their money’s-worth or pass it around.

However, it was not until the 19th century that vending machines appeared in a form akin to the ones of today.

One of the earliest vending machines was Simeon Denham’s so-called ‘self-acting machine’, designed and patented in 1857. The machine allowed the user to buy penny postage stamps without having to queue at the post office. This machine worked in a similar way to the stamp saving scheme vending machines commonly found in supermarkets today.

When the correct coin was dropped into the slot a lever was then activated. The user would pull down the lever which in turn pushed the stamps through a roller and out of a slot in the front where one could be torn off against a cutting edge. If the wrong coin was inserted it would fall through the inner workings of the machine and be returned without activating the mechanism. The penny stamp machine did not actually come into use in post offices until 1907, half a century after its original patenting.

In the 1880s, London engineer, Percival Everitt patented several automatic vending devices. One such device was a machine for dispensing pre-stamped postcards and was first installed in London in 1883.

The machine used the weight of the coin rolling through a series of tunnels to activate the machinery which then allowed a postcard to drop into a slim drawer below and be extracted by the user. As with the penny stamp machine, smaller coins could be returned without activating the mechanism.

Over time, Everitt developed many more patented machines which were not so susceptible to being tampered with to obtain more goods than were paid for. Newer machines were able to assess when a fake coin or ‘slug’ was inserted.

The automatic vending industry grew quickly in Britain and by the turn of the 20th century vending machines were offering a range of goods and services from cigarettes and confectionary to books and train tickets.

Column vending machines became a common feature outside shops. These vending machines had two or more columns, each with a small drawer beneath. A long, thin window at the front of each column allowed users to see when a product was in stock but was too slim for products to be passed through if the window was smashed. These were perfect for oblong and boxed items such as chocolate bars’ cigarettes and matches.

Companies quickly saw the value of these machines and began using them as advertising tools. Confectionary vending machines often bore the Cadbury or Nestlé insignia whilst cigarette machines bore the names of big tobacco brands.

Telephone booths were first introduced in 1925 and by 1930 they could be found in most public places. The caller would lift the handset, insert the money and dial the number. When the call was answered the caller would press button A to deposit the money into the cash box. The caller could not be heard at the other end until this was done. If the call did not connect, the caller could press button B and have the money returned. Phone boxes like this were used until the mid-1990s.

Automatic vending of goods flourished throughout 1920s as more companies offering supply and maintenance of machines sprang up. Shops could lease machines on a monthly basis. The range of goods available grew; customers could now buy paperback books and rolls of photographic film from machines. Domestic coin operated gas and electricity meters were installed in the homes of the working classes across the UK.

The beginning of the war stopped the progress of automatic vending, as luxury goods were no longer available and food was rationed and sold over the counter. Factories used for producing vending machines were given over to the production of munitions and general engineering for the war effort.

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